Plato and the Organic Universe

R.D. White

We must understand that the organic vision of the universe is the primordial vision, as the original and natural vision, as well as the product of evolution. Evolution is not progress, but change over time, as all things change and grow. As Plato most eloquently describes in several places, the universe is ordered and alive, just like a living being. Plato was only expressing the primordial vision, which was always the Greek view, which in turn expressed the traditional understanding of the universe stretching back to time immemorial, shared really by all cultures. It is a modern misunderstanding, or failure to understand completely the view of the Greeks and the ancient world, to ascribe to them ideas such as materialism, as this would have been a foreign concept to them.

From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “In his introduction to Plato’s works, Cairns (1961) points out that the Greek view, as far back as we have records, is that the world is orderly and alive. From this perspective, the failure to appreciate Plato’s organicism is part and parcel of a failure to appreciate Greek organicism more generally. For example, whereas modern scholars view the Milesians as forerunners of modern materialism (Jeans, 1958), the Milesians held that matter is alive (Cornford, 1965; Robin, 1996). Similarly, Anaximenes did not hold that air is the basis of all things in the same sense, or for the same reasons, that a modern materialist might hold such a view. He views air as breath and sees air as the basis of all things because he sees the world as a living thing and therefore “wants it to breath” (Robin, 1996; Cornford, 1966). Pythagoras too, who exerted great influence on Plato, saw the world as a living breathing being (Robinson, 1968). Cornford (1966) notes that Plato’s description in the Timaeus of his world animal as a “well rounded sphere” has been seen by some scholars as the best commentary on Parmenides’ comparison of his One Being to a perfect sphere (raising the possibility of a Parmenidean organicism). Finally, by stressing that fire is the basis of all things, Heraclitus did not mean that fire is the material out of which all things are made. His fire is an “ever living” fire (Burnet, 1971). Similar points could be made about other pre-Socratic philosophers. The Greek tendency to view the world as a living thing is rooted in the fact that the early Greek notion of nature, physis, was closer in meaning to life than to matter (Cornford, 1965). This is why, as far back as Hesiod, procreation plays such a prominent role in Greek creation stories, as it does in the Timaeus (Section 2c.). From this perspective, it is not surprising that Plato develops an organicist cosmology. It would be surprising if he did not have one.”

Furthermore, the Organic Universe did not fade away anymore than Plato himself. In Germany, the concept of the Organic Universe became mainstream again with the fading of Christian control. It was called the Weltgeist, or the “world-spirit”. The Weltgiest is simply the spirit of the organic universe. Goethe and many other German writers explored this concept. This understanding remained strong in the writings of Hegel too, and many of his followers. It did not pass out of the mainstream again until the end of the 1930s.

The concept of the Weltgiest is fundamentally the underlying belief system of paganism, and thus the primordial religion. We see in the organic nation the Volkgeist, or the “National-Spirit”. The national-spirit is of course not something separate from the world spirit, but simply one expression of the world-spirit, in the same that ultimately each individual is an expression of the world-spirit. If we consider the world-spirit as being related to the Earth, then the world-spirit is, in turn, an expression of the universe-spirit. Pantheism, Animism, Paganism are all different contextual names for the same fundamental concept.

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